Here we go again.
After a 2010 legislative session filled with abuses of open government principles, the state Senate is back to its old tricks — meeting in secret and holding public hearings on a voluminous bill introduced the very same day.
It’s wrong and Senate leaders owe it to the public to make substantive reforms to improve transparency, end the secrecy and let the public provide meaningful testimony on legislation under consideration.
The big violator this year is Sen. Rosemary McAuliffe, a Democrat from Bothell and chairwoman of the Senate Early Learning and K-12 Education Committee.
Last week she held a hearing on Senate Bill 5639, a bill “creating a student-focused state-level education governance system.”
That may sound like a mundane topic, but this is monumental legislation. It’s the governor’s sweeping reform of this state’s education system — putting the entire public education system from kindergarten through college under an appointed secretary accountable to the governor. The legislation minimizes the role of the Superintendent of Public Education, basically shifting responsibility for education — defined by the state constitution as “the paramount duty of the state” — from the elected state school superintendent to the governor.
It’s a gigantic shift in public policy that merits thoughtful consideration and analysis.
So how did Sen. McAuliffe treat her 97-page bill? She introduced it the very same day she scheduled an 8 a.m. public hearing for it.
How is anyone supposed to read, let alone, analyze and offer meaningful testimony on a 97-page bill that has only been introduced hours before?
They can’t and that’s why Sen. McAuliffe deserves criticism for her conduct and why internal reforms are necessary in the state Legislature. She has rightfully scheduled a second public hearing for Thursday.
Need another example of abuse? Look no further than McAuliffe’s Senate Early Learning and K-12 Education Committee for a secretive meeting practice followed earlier this session.
As noted by Peter Callaghan, staff writer for our sister newspaper in Tacoma, McAuliffe’s committee went behind closed doors for a “joint caucus” in January.
Callaghan said McAuliffe told him the purpose of the secret meeting of committee members from both parties was bipartisanship, and that she planned to repeat them every Thursday after the regular meeting was finished.
As Callaghan noted, “Usually a caucus is a separate meeting of each house’s party members. A joint caucus, therefore, is something of a contradiction in terms. The only difference between a ‘joint caucus’ and a committee meeting is that the former is closed to the public and the latter is open.”
When Callaghan objected to the closed door meeting of all committee members, Senate staffers noted that lawmakers don’t have to play by the same rules as city councils, school boards and other government entities. The Legislature has exempted itself from the Open Public Meetings Act.
Knowing they were about to come under additional criticism for their secretive meetings, Senate Majority Leader Sen. Lisa Brown from Spokane said majority Democrats decided to end joint caucuses, dashing McAuliffe’s plan for secret weekly committee meetings.
It was the right decision.
What troubles us is the pattern of abuse in both the House and Senate, by both Democrats and Republicans, whichever party is in power. They are doing the public’s business and, darn it, their meetings should be open and their actions should be transparent.
State Auditor Brian Sonntag, a Democrat, and Republican Attorney General Rob McKenna, have called for legislative reforms. One step in that direction is Senate Bill 5419 which would require that budgets and tax or fee increase legislation be available to the public a full 24 hours in advance of legislative action. The bill is scheduled for a public hearing at 10 a.m. Thursday in the Senate Government Operations, Tribal Relations and Elections Committee.
It’s not the comprehensive overhaul that’s warranted, but it’s a start. Only public pressure will force lawmakers to change their secretive practices that disenfranchise the public and sever the bond of trust between elected officials and their constituents.